Is Innovation Dead?

I’ll admit it. I didn’t make it to this year’s ISA Expo. My excuse was a trip to Tokyo to be there as Yokogawa celebrated its 90th anniversary.

In fact, in the space of about five weeks, I visited four users conferences. Several sources reported a noticeable lack of innovative products introduced at the Expo. That’s too bad. I had to put on about 15,000 frequent flier miles to see what we used to see under one roof in less than a week. And what I saw confirmed that innovation is alive and well in the automation industry.

You don’t have to be on the “CSI: Miami” team to discover a big theme in this month’s issue. In case you’re reading this first, I’ll give it away—wireless is big. Every month Jim Pinto and I bat ideas back and forth over what we see to be major topics in the industry. Sometimes we agree, sometimes he goes his own way. This month as we discussed networking (in itself a major topic), we began to focus on the power (Jim calls it revolutionary, see p. 62) of a combination of wireless networking and inexpensive, wireless sensors. This has the potential to revolutionize the way our automation systems see a plant and report to business systems. Jane Gerold (see p. 64) calls it a “game changer.” And Wes Iversen explores it in depth on pp. 30-34.

Both Invensys and Emerson had prominent technical sessions at their users group conferences on wireless technology and applications, as well as displays of the technology. While Rockwell’s chief technology officer Sujeet Chand discussed the potential of wireless before the assembled media and analysts at his company’s Automation Fair, Rockwell showed little wireless capability directly. There was plenty of activity in that area from its partners on the show floor. During a reception before the kickoff of Automation Fair, Jane and I questioned just about every Rockwell vice president, as well as Chief Executive Officer Keith Nosbusch, about the potential of wireless. They know where we stand.

After publication of Clayton Christiansen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” everyone started looking for “disruptive technologies.” In the late ‘90s, one marketing manager told me that PC-based control—a technology using personal computers as the control hardware platform with software applications for control added—would be a disruptive technology. In a sense, he was right, but not in the sense he meant. PC technologies are found everywhere now, but not in the guise of personal computers. Instead, they are embedded in smaller devices.

Total Change

A disruptive technology is not one that does the same thing in a slightly different way. It is a technology that totally changes the way we do things. Take disk drives, for instance, Christiansen’s example. The ability to make a multi-megabyte drive small enough to fit in a small handheld device has totally changed the way we get music. I just bought Carlos Santana’s latest CD (actually virtual CD) from iTunes and loaded it on my iPod so I could listen to it at the gym.

I think that wireless technologies combined with inexpensive sensors and powerful software is a disruptive technology. Too many people compare this architecture to what we do now with wires. This idea has nothing to do with replacing wires. It has everything to do with how we manage plants for profit. What if you had thousands of sensors measuring all sorts of stuff, and you could manage all that data and present actionable information? Think about how you could maximize efficiency and profits. Now that’s disruptive—and innovative.

And finally, a tribute to the master innovator of management thinking—Peter Drucker. He kept active even into his nineties. Drucker died in November, leaving a legacy of wisdom in his writings.

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